Sergei looked carefully at the two women, spider-webbed in body harnesses, standing in the tiny capsule. He checked to see the equipment was working alright, then looked again at their still figures facing outward from the centre. Neither one moved so much as a millimeter; all was functioning as expected. They remained as stiff as statues, looking more like test dummies than cosmonauts about to be blasted into space.
Running a gloved hand over one girl's face, he said "Pleasant dreams, Svetlana." She had been frozen with her eyes closed, as if sleeping. Despite that, her happy personality seemed to glow upon the frozen face, surrounded by a halo of fine brown hair. She was thin, like Western women; too thin for most Russians, but her trim physique would have been loved most anywhere else. She had been frozen according to plan, eager to be the first test subject to be so suspended. It was the only time she was still. Normally, Svetlana was an active, athletic person.
He turned to the other girl, and traced a line from her small breasts to her jumpsuit-covered crotch, feeling just how stiff the woman was. This one was also very beautiful, with the tall and lean body of a ballet dancer; willowy, graceful and angular, but well-muscled by exercise. Her eyes remained half-closed, giving her a mysterious, sensuous appearance. She was the most stubborn of the girls in the program, and had only participated in this mission to avoid the gulags. When she had been frozen, she had not closed her eyes like the rest, but held them open completely in defiance as her body stiffened in the electronic field. Sergei had been able to close her eyes as much as possible before she became completely hard. They were not closed fully; however, the effect did look good on her. "And to you, Maria. Fare Well." With one last pat on her breast, a final tug on the straps, he walked backwards slowly out of the capsule of the Soyuz spacecraft and exited.
"Close up the hatch." Sergei said to the technicians waiting outside. He did not look back as he went to the elevator and went down. He walked onto ground as the elevator arrived down. Getting into one of the all-purpose vehicles the Americans called jeeps, he was driven to the launch command post for the rocket launch, where all was busy and important people waited for him. People he commanded.
"Are we all ready with the device, Comrade Director?" A General of the Soviet Rocket Forces addressed Sergei.
The doctor nodded. "Yes, the suspensors are working optimally. The two subjects are fully immobilized, and the spacecraft is ready for launch."
"Excellent, Comrade!" The General slapped Sergei on the back. "If your miracle device works, we will be on the way to the Moon and beyond within couple of years, before those Americans!" He turned as a mission director came to them. "Comrade General, the last people are away from the rocket. We are prepared with launch sequence."
"Good. Comrade Korolev. You can start the countdown now." The General moved to the TV and looked at the rocket as seen by a camera, eagerly waiting the launch.
Sergei moved to his private console, where some of his scientists watched their instruments.
"Is everything going smoothly, Comrades?" He asked.
"Yes Comrade Director. Both Svetlana and Maria remain fully suspended." An older scientist, Nicolai, said.
"Very well." Sergei turned to watch his TV. It was all going according to plan. Years of work on the suspensor device would result in this, a soon-to-be successful mission. And 'his' device would allow the Soviet Union to be supreme for all time in space. For the Soviet Union was locked in a space race with America, and they were losing the high ground rapidly. The USSR had been first in space, first in space with man, but the new American president, Kennedy, had said America was to land a man on the moon before the decade was over. The leader of the USSR, Khrushchev, wanted a Russian to be the first to walk on the moon. And Mars, and beyond. He wanted Russia to be the leader forever in space. Beyond his bold words, a team of scientists and engineers struggled to turn a leader's boasts into cold hard reality.
Getting a man to the moon was a problem. Shipping spacecraft, crew, and supplies to keep the crew alive to the moon took an enormous amount of fuel, rockets, and time. Every gram aloft required a hundred at launch. America would later have three men to go to the moon and stay for a few hours. The Soviets had always wanted many more men to go to the moon to stay for much longer; days and weeks. That was the crucial problem. The supplies needed to keep many men alive for the whole mission would be great, more so then could be lifted into space even with the USSR's mighty N1 rockets. Building larger rockets was too expensive; too risky, as several disastrous accidents had already proven. Sending fewer men or spending less time on the moon was not acceptable to the leaders. So weight had to be saved by using less supplies while getting to the moon and back. Some way had to be found of using less food and oxygen per person than was theoretically possible.
Sergei had found a way. It was called an Immobilizer, by some; the scientist favored his original term: Suspensor. An outgrowth of neurological research, the device generated a curiously modulated electrical field with astonishing effects on living tissue. Channeled into a person by a cigar-shaped rectenna, the suspensor field could render him or her completely frozen; still, immovable, and unconscious. In short, creating a perfect state of suspended animation. Within a few seconds, the subjects' entire metabolism would halt totally, meaning they would not require any air, food, or water. Reversing the field would restore normal animation almost immediately. It was the breakthough the Soviets desperately needed to retake the lead in the space race. Immobilizing cosmonauts on moon missions while traveling would save important supplies; they would not need their monster rockets to send the number of cosmonauts they wanted. But the technology was complicated, and the field generator large. The rectenna also required placement in a body cavity; most often for female subjects this was inserted into the vagina.
Years of work had finally reduced the base unit for the Immobilizer to fit inside a Soyuz spacecraft and allow for two cosmonauts, but only without their large spacesuits. Earlier, a female test subject had been launched into space, frozen for a time, and unfrozen successfully, before landing. She had reported an unexpected exhilaration upon revival that Sergei committed to studying further, when the moon was theirs. This mission would determine if two female subjects could be frozen completely from before launch to landing to verify that minimal consumables were required to maintain them in orbit. Success on this mission would allow Russia a better chance at landing on the moon before the Americans.
Sergei looked at the general and frowned. All the test subjects to date for the device had been women, since men were needed by the State. While the women were being continually tested to see how long they could be suspended safely, with several going on for five years now, these suspensions were for science, to see how things would work for cosmonauts later. However, many officials including this general, viewed the immobilized women differently; quite a few of the women who had come from the gulags had been taken… to serve as fine life-like statues for high officials. The general had not yet exercised this privilege, but he looked like he wanted to. The women so chosen had no say in their fate.
Sergei was mostly insulted. The suspensor was for science, not crude art. The idea of depriving women of their lives, their mobility, on the whim of a state bureaucrat was offensive to him as a person. Yet another feeling stirred him, for he had seen some of the living statues and had felt oddly attracted to the idea of frozen women as art. Svetlana, Maria; two nymphs in a glade... He had to stop thinking of that. His two daughters serving in the program might not approve.
His thoughts were interrupted by a new man, in civilian clothes, coming up to him. "Comrade director," he said, "I am General Vatutin, of State Security."
"Greetings, General." Sergei said uneasily. Here was a KGB watchdog that was dangerous.
Vatutin was feeling magnanimous. "I congratulate you for your success on the immobilizer. It will be very important invention for Mother Russia."
Sergei waved it off. "It was nothing I could take all credit for. There were many factors to the success, much research, tests..."
"I know." The KGB man said, smiling smugly. "There are many American and Japanese scientists who will be surprised at how successful the immobilizer has performed so far, both within the program and in other ways. And the Chairman eagerly looks forward to increasing use of it." He walked off toward the General of Rocket Forces.
Sergei was surprised. It had been years since he remembered the pioneering work done on the immobilizer, which he had found very helpful when the purloined technology had mysteriously appeared in his laboratory. Then he remembered the KGB knew everything. And the Chairman of the KGB wanted 'increasing use'! He had many covert uses for the immobilizer, alright, but the man also collected immobilized women as art or decoration. Sergei had visited the Chairman's dacha and observed the statuary garden and the many displays of motionless women in the mansion. The sight had torn Sergei between desire and revulsion.
Sergei turned to his console. There was no time to worry about the KGB.
"Five…Four…Three...Two…One. Launch!" The TV showing the rocket carrying the two women as it ignited. Smoke and flames came from the bottom, spewing torrentially out of the flame channels like water from a broken dam. The support towers next to the rocket fell away as the rocket rose atop its pillar of fire. It probed higher and higher, slowly at first but visibly gaining speed in every second of flight.
Everybody in the room was cheering at the launch. Even Sergei felt proud at the sight. Another great achievement for the country was being forged today, and he was a part of it.
"First stage shut-off, separation… second stage ignition!" The rocket dropped its first stage booster. Now it was smaller, but still rising quickly.
"A great sight, Comrade Director!" The general was smiling. He could see the happy news reported to Moscow. He turned to Sergei. "How are our frozen beauties behaving?"
"Fine. They are still totally immobilized. Everything is working fine." Sergei looked at his instruments. Everything was well.
"Good." The General turned to look
at the TV showing the rocket continue its rise…
…and then it begin to shake badly. "We have a problem, Comrade Director!" a launch technician shouted from his console.
Director Korolev paled. "What is it?"
"Main engine 1 is failing. Correction, it has failed." The rocket was turning hard to one side now.
"Correct for it! Try to reactivate the engine!"
"Trying sir! Engine will not start!"
"What is the problem, Korolev!" The general was hovering next to the console.
Sergei was concerned. His immobilized subjects showed no change, of course, they were completely suspended and barely showed any life signs at all; yet he feared what might happen next.
"One of the engines has failed. We can't restart it…We might have to have go for a lower orbit…or…"
"Or what…?" Sergei asked, dreading the answer.
"The rocket will not have enough power and will come back down." Korolev said evenly.
The General panicked. "Do something!"
"I am trying--"
The rocket was turning again, after controls had corrected the turn to the other side. Now it turned hard in a different direction.
"It is heading towards Moscow!" The general said, alarmed. "Can it get into space?"
The technician's face was ashen. "Second engine failing! Shut-off on second engine executed!"
The rocket was falling now, with only one engine working. It was turning hard to one side. Then the second engine fired again. It flamed out again, but restarted after a few heart-wrenching seconds and remained running. A couple of moments passed before everybody was sure it was working. Altitude was being gained. Earth's covetous gravity had lost the battle -- this time.
"What went wrong, Comrade Korolev?" The General said angrily.
"Not sure. I have to check the telemetry data later." As seen in the blurry long-range telescopic view, the second stage was expended and was jettisoned from the rocket. Now the third stage was firing… Sergei crossed his fingers; good Soviets were not supposed to be superstitious.
"Has anything gone wrong with the Immobilizer, Comrade Director?"
Sergei look at his instruments and shook his head. "No, everything seems to be working properly."
One of the technicians whispered alarmingly to Korolev.
"Good." The General said, as Korolev looked up from some papers.
"We might have another problem, Comrade General."
"What? How?" This was turning out to be a disastrous day.
"Because of lack of power gotten from the second stage, the third stage has had to burn longer then expected to reach the orbit required."
"So, the third stage will normally need a change of firing instructions for when to shut down upon attaining the proper orbit..."
Sergei had a very bad feeling as the General asked, "And?"
"The third stage has refused to accept commands anymore. Possibly the problems with the second stage may have damaged the remote controls or the receiver." Korolev said. "And that is not the only problem."
"What other problem can there be?" The General demanded, shaking his head.
"We never thought the stage would not respond to radio commands. There is no automatic cut-off. Therefore the engines will burn until they run out of fuel, leaving the Soyuz capsule in a much higher and more eccentric orbit then we thought. And then there will be no fuel to de-orbit the capsule after the stage is spent. There is some fortunate news; the orbit they are entering is of a very long period and there is no danger of premature re-entry. Much to the contrary."
"You mean my test subjects are now stranded in space?" Sergei demanded, shouting.
Korolev said quietly, "Yes. With this projected third stage burn," he showed the monitor, "the rocket will not have fuel to return to Earth. Perhaps we can later plan another Soyuz mission to refuel the rocket motor or retrieve the subjects, but for now, they are un-reachable."
"Impossible. All the year's space missions have been planned. We can not change them." The General replied. He knew the Americans' schedule as well.
"Then they are stranded."
"Then they are stranded." The General agreed. "They will have to wait until we have a new plan of space missions."
"But, they're loyal Soviet citizens! They need to come down!"
"They are doing their duty as citizens of the USSR, without complaint. As you are to now do your duty." The General said. "In any case, how long can the women stay suspended by your device?"
Sergei thought for a moment. "At the moment, five years. Probably more without ill effect, assuming power to supply the device. There is a chance of hardening the field even further and extending the suspension period, but that has never been attempted."
"And you have emergency power supply, and the Soyuz has solar panels to power it and the Immobilizer. I think your test subjects will be safe for five years and we should have them return long before that. Perhaps it would be prudent to examine longer suspension alternatives, time permitting." The General said confidently. "In any case, you are suppose to concentrate on your primary duties, and leave the mission of rocket flight to me and Comrade Korolev here."
Sergei knew the General was finished with hearing him talking. His mind was made up So Sergei just nodded before attempting one more appeal. "Will you do everything to effect their return?"
"Of course, Comrade Director. You can even talk with Comrade General Secretary Khrushchev next month about it. I have no doubt he will support the matter."
Sergei had his doubts. The General had never cared anything for the test subjects of the Immobilizer, thinking the women were unimportant to the State. After all, he had several of them decorating his quarters. He would probably not support very much of a rescue mission. But Comrade Khrushchev was a long-time supporter of Sergei's, and the director believed the General Secretary would support anything to help the space program. So he nodded again. "I see. I trust your word, Comrade General."
He turned away. He needed to prepare his arguments for Comrade Khrushchev. Next month.
Next month never came. A couple weeks later, before Sergei's meeting, Khrushchev was overthrown by his enemies in the Soviet Politburo. The new head of the the USSR, Brezhnev, was not interested in conquering space, and cut the space program back. He did not want to meet with Sergei, but listened instead to the General and his plans for strategic missiles.
That meant no rescue, unless it
did not have to use precious State resources. Instead, everybody in the
program got a medal for their glorious work performed in the service of
Mother Russia. Troubles multiplied, people relocated, and nearly
everyone forgot about the failure of that space mission, of the Soyuz capsule
orbiting far above the Earth, and of the two Soviet citizens stranded inside.
"Academician Zorynich to see Comrade Chelomei," the visitor said to an ancient manservant, then stomped into the foyer. The warmth inside seemed almost shocking after the chill wind in the forecourt. Without a word, the servant turned and started to walk away. Sergei followed a short distance behind despite the disproving look the servant had given him. He had not gotten where he was by waiting for others. Yet this new head of the program was, by all accounts, a fool. But perhaps he could be swayed; a chance existed. Faint, but they could still win the race.
"For what do I owe this great honor, Comrade Zorynich?" the reedy voice of Chelomei echoed in the vast hallway as the corpulent administrator shuffled closer, walking with the aid of a cane.
Sergei ignored the condescending tone. "A plan, Director Chelomei. There may be yet a way to beat the imperialists to the moon!"
"Ah, how interesting. For there is no need for any dramatic change in the program. The N-1 has already assured our victory, and soon now."
Opening his mouth to protest, Sergei shut it without speaking. Arguing with a fool is pointless, he thought. All the N-1 will do is bury us...
Chelomei took the other's silence for agreement. "The launch this next month will place our capsule in orbit around the lunar body. From there we will send down a robot lander to plant the Soviet flag and assure our sovereignty. Come; you have traveled all this way. There is a samovar in the library, you must warm yourself before returning to the winds outside."
He's dismissing me, without so much as listening? Sergei thought, with a grunt, as he followed the hobbling idiot deeper into the vast dacha. Somehow he must be shown there is a better way; a faster way...
"Comrade Director, a giant rocket may not be required; especially one that has not flown successfully. By taking advantage of my researches in suspended animation, it is possible to send a small, two-man, team to the moon. Now! Using an existing Soyuz capsule and a Proton launch vehicle, with a modified mid-stage booster. We can go there, land, bring the cosmonauts out of suspension, plant the flag, and return. All before those Americans have even orbited the moon. There is more to this plan, of course..."
The chief of the Soviet space program heard only what he wanted to hear. "Yes, I am well acquainted with your magical device. It has made many things possible. Chai?" He handed a brimming cup to Sergei as a gesture of hospitality, but let his manservant prepare his own refreshment.
"Much thanks," Sergei said as he accepted it. Chelomei stepped further into the room, moving around tall bookcases toward an open space lit by an ornate chandelier hung from the third floor. Sergei followed, ready to resume his convincing arguments, until he saw what occupied the center of the library.
She was young, probably in her early twenties, and very beautiful. Lithe and limber, she might have once been a ballerina. Now, posed still as stone on a meter-high dais of dark marble, she was a stunning sculpture. Horizontal, almost laying on the polished surface, she had raised herself up to lean on both arms with a half-twist in her waist so that her firm young breasts were displayed to the light and in the shadows could be seen the outline of her naked, hairless, female genitalia in the V between her slim legs. She was looking outward - levelly - with a wistful, almost sad, expression captured on her lovely features. Her dark hair had been cut short so as to not hide the sweep of her neck. Whether naturally or by some makeup, her skin was very pale and smooth; giving the impression of a shape carved in alabaster or the finest Carrera marble. The young girl remained completely motionless in her static pose as time passed freely around her. She was, of course, frozen. Only the thin black wire trailing out of her womanhood and entering the platform a few centimeters away betrayed the statue's true origin.
Sergei was stunned. He said nothing, mouth agape.
"Magnificent, isn't she!" Chelomei beamed, stepping up close to the frozen girl and leaving his cup on the dais as he caressed her solid body with one grubby hand.
"You.... you...." Sergei sputtered, unable to find words to express his outrage.
"I know; I got the best of the lot." He smiled conspiratorially. "But, since you invented this wonderful device in the first place I am sure you can choose your favorite out of the next production run."
"Don't you realize what... who... you are displaying like some common artwork?"
"Of course; all Soviet citizens are asked to make sacrifices for the state. This one has donated her beauty to bring a small measure of enjoyment into an old man's life."
"That's a living person up there. She has a life; she has rights. Do you even know her name?"
"I call this one 'Reclining Nude'; that is enough for me." He picked up his cup and rejoined Sergei, not noticing how the scientist was almost shaking with rage. "Now, for the true purpose for your visit. I was wondering if you have found a way to make your immobilizing device smaller? You see, one of my favorite maidservants - her name is Tatiana - is quite comely and I would like some way to change her into one of these living statues any time I desire it."
"No...." Sergei said weakly, shifting from anger into despair. His outstanding invention, turned into a cheap parlor trick. The moon was lost...
He turned without saying another word and strode towards the outside. Suddenly the air in here was stifling. He had to reach the cold, clear, pure breeze that swirled outside. Director Chelomei called out something to him, but he chose not to hear it.
The view from the car window was a blurred passing scene painted in grays and whites and the occasional spray of black as they passed a leafless tree in the countryside. It had been a long winter, this year; everything was frozen, still, and it was almost spring. "Frozen..." The word escaped from Sergei's parched lips, reminding him of the purpose of this journey: To rescue his comrades, his long-forgotten test subjects, from an orbit high above the Earth where they remained; stranded. They, too, were frozen; suspended in space and time until the fortunes of nations and his fellow scientists could secure their return. "Ah, Maria, Svetlana. How beautiful you were, how young and willing!" He closed his eyes, forgot the sordid details of their 'volunteer' mission, and remembered their faces the last time he had seen them. Frozen.
There had to be a way.
Sergei kept the special medals awarded to the women test subjects of his program, those meant for Maria and Svetlana. He swore one day they would receive them. He began to make plans of his own; plans that did not involve the Soviet space program, or the deceiving General.
And soon after, Nicolai the scientist
secretly passed some information to another man on the streets of Moscow.
That man wrapped the thin notebook inside a used sheet of butcher
papers smelling of herring and placed the package behind a hollowed-out
stone in a nondescript wall, then walked home, smoking a Cuban cigar with
great vigor. Later that night, someone else retrieved the bundle
from the dead-drop while sweeping the street and made it appear in the
laundry chute of the American Embassy. Soon after that, many events
were started in motion.